Tom McAnearney was a beacon of calmness and consistency at the heart of Sheffield Wednesday's midfield, first in the Owls' yo-yo years between the top two divisions of English football in the late 1950s, and then, during his personal prime, as the Hillsborough side enjoyed half a decade among the leading six clubs in the land.
That the slim but wirily resilient wing-half never won a cap for his native Scotland was due not to any shortcomings in his own game – which was of the unspectacular variety, though relentlessly efficient – but to the presence of such illustrious contemporaries as Dave Mackay, Paddy Crerand, Jim Baxter and Frank McLintock, all gifted players who understandably dominated the thinking of successive national managers. McAnearney was never more effective than in 1960-61, when Bill Nicholson's wondrous Tottenham Hotspur became the first club during the 20th century to lift the League and FA Cup double, and Wednesday were their nearest challengers, finishing as runners-up in the top flight and reaching the sixth round of the Cup.
The red-haired Dundonian was recruited by the Owls from his local junior club, Dundee North End, as an 18-year-old in October 1951, and within a year had made his First Division debut in a 2-0 home defeat by Liverpool. However, by the time he earned a regular place in 1955-56, having completed an apprenticeship as a bricklayer, Wednesday had been relegated and were much in need of his youthful vigour.
He provided it in spades and by season's end he was rewarded with a Second Division championship medal. He had emerged as an intelligent, perceptive passer who read the game shrewdly, and a solid tackler, but for the next two seasons McAnearney found himself in a side which struggled, culminating in another demotion in 1958.
During the following summer Eric Taylor was replaced by the rising managerial star Harry Catterick, who established the Scot alongside the towering centre-half Peter Swan and the feisty Tony Kay – both of whom were destined to be disgraced in the bribes scandal of the early 1960s – as a high-quality half-back line which was hugely instrumental in the Owls taking the divisional title for the second time in four seasons.
McAnearney was on the verge of his pomp, having linked beautifully with fine attackers such as Redfern Froggatt, Albert Quixall, Alan Finney and the prolific Johnny Fantham, and he shone as Wednesday became firmly established in the First Division. Over the next five seasons, first under Catterick and then Vic Buckingham, they finished fifth, second and then sixth three times in succession, with the Dundonian captain for some of that period.
As well as demonstrating his quiet but uplifting leadership, he became a coolly competent penalty taker, never more memorably than in the 1-0 FA Cup victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford in February 1960 – eventually they lost to Blackburn Rovers in the semi-finals – and in the 4-3 away win against Burnley, one of their main rivals for the runners-up spot, a year later.
McAnearney's poise was invaluable, too, as Wednesday made their first forays into Europe, reaching the quarter-finals of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup – forerunner of the Europa League – in 1961-62, although he was injured before the last-eight elimination by Barcelona.
In autumn 1964, aged 31, he lost his place to the promising young Peter Eustace and in November 1965 he was sold to Third Division Peterborough United for £5,000 after nearly 400 senior appearances for the Owls. He didn't linger long at London Road, accepting the post of player-coach at Fourth Division Aldershot, who paid a similar fee for his services in March 1966. He laid aside his boots in 1968 during a spell as player-manager before returning to Hillsborough as a coach later that year.
He became caretaker-manager of Wednesday after Jack Marshall was sacked in March 1969, then stayed to assist the new man Danny Williams before accepting the reins of Bury in November 1970. It was too late to prevent the struggling Shakers' relegation to the Fourth Division that season, but he remained at Gigg Lane until May 1972, when he became manager of Aldershot.
McAnearney led his new charges to promotion at the first attempt, but they went back down in 1975-76. They stabilised in the top half of the Fourth and reached the last 16 of the FA Cup in 1979, a stirring effort, ahead of his exit in January 1981. McAnearney – whose younger brother Jim also spent most of the 1950s with Wednesday but never thrived and went on to enjoy greater success with Plymouth Argyle and Watford – later coached briefly with Chelsea, then became a postman in Aldershot before retiring to Sheffield.
Thomas McAnearney, footballer and manager: born Dundee 6 January 1933; played for Sheffield Wednesday 1951-65, Peterborough United 1965-66, Aldershot 1966-68; managed Aldershot 1967-68 and 1972-81, Sheffield Wednesday (caretaker) 1969, Bury 1970-72; died 14 February 2012.